Part 1: Review of Millington's "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth"

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Part 1: Review of Millington's "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth"

Post by alberich00 » Thu Jan 31, 2013 5:05 pm

Part One of Paul Heise's review of Barry Millington's "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth":

BM = Barry Millington; PH = Paul Heise's commentary

BM: Preface, Page 6:

"The designation 'sorcerer' also has a pejorative connotation, ... as Nietzsche, who was the first to use it with regard to Wagner, was well aware. Those spells can be woven round the listener without their consent; and might there actually be something dangerous in the brew? There is certainly a very potent element in his [Wagner's] works, to judge by the passions they arouse when their content is under discussion."

PH: Anybody who at minimum has read my introduction to "The Wound That Will Never Heal" here at, and enough of the following book to have a sense of its scope and content, knows that I've presented an entirely new reading of what might be "dangerous" in Wagner's mature music-dramas, and the "Ring" in particular. However, if you read Millington's next paragraph, and then consult his bibliography, you won't find any evidence that Millington is aware of my (which presents what even my antagonists would agree is the most comprehensive conceptual study of Wagner's central work, the "Ring," in the literature). has now been online for about one year and ten months: it is about time that the Wagner punditocracy took it seriously enough to offer a critique.

BM: "The perplexing ideology of their [Wagner's operas and music-dramas] creator similarly causes endless dissension, yet so rich are the works, and so problematic their composer, that the exegetical challenges seem to be endlessly renewable. The present book attempts to grapple with these issues and to present them in a new light, drawing on scholarship of recent years that has yielded some fascinating results and in some cases positively demanded a radical reappraisal of the subject. Examples are recent studies of Cosima Wagner, of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, of Wagner's fetishistic tendencies, his compositional process and his own self-promotion as a 'brand';, and of the subsequent members of the Wagner clan (notably Winifred, Wieland and Wolfgang). There has also been some sterling musicological work done on the thirteen operas that form the core of Wagner's oeuvre, while the discipline of film studies has thrown up some intriguing insights into their proto-cinematic nature. Hovering like a dark cloud, never quite banished, is the baleful legacy of Wagner - specifically the question of his anti-Semitism and the extent to which it is integral to the works themselves. Here, too, there has been some valuable scholarship of late."

PH: Visitors to who have read deeply in my book on Wagner's "Ring" know that I have offered a radical, comprehensive, and fully documented reappraisal of the ultimate significance and meaning of Wagner's entire oeuvre, and also know that I've offered an original reading of Wagner's anti-Semitism and the sense (if at all) in which it is embedded in his artworks. Furthermore, I have been forwarding various manuscripts of my original research into Wagner's artwork to as many of the leading Wagner scholars as I could reach since 1983 when I distributed my first attempt to demonstrate the conceptual unity of Wagner's mature music-dramas ("The Doctrine of the Ring") to most of the scholars present at the last big centennial symposium, "Wagner in Retrospect: A Centennial Reappraisal," which was organized by the Univ. of Illinois Chicago Circle in November of 1983. BM would do well to add to the list of his source material.

BM: Chapter 6 - Desperately Seeking Venus: "Tannhaeuser":

P. 50: "Saint and sinner, Madonna and whore, flesh and spirit: these are the traditional binaries around which Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" is constructed. Oscillating between sacred and profane love, represented by Elizabeth and Venus respectively, "Tannhaeuser" negotiates this dialectical opposition, finally breaking out of the straitjacket of stereoptypes. Venus and her realm may be banished at the work's conclusion, but the libidinal life force she embodies has by then made a transformative impact on the ossified attitude to sexuality exemplified by the knights and minstrels of Wartburg society. Even so, it is one of the more curious paradoxes of Wagnerian opera that the composer, regarded as the quintessential purveyor of excessive sensuality in art, appears to repudiate the unbridled eroticism with which he is irredeemably associated. This paradox lies at the heart of the conception of "Tannhaeuser."

PH: Those who read and also look over my essays at (click on "Resources," and then "Papers on Wagner"), will find that I see "Tannhaeuser" in the light of its position as the germ of Wagner's "Tristan," "Siegfried," "The Twilight of the Gods," "Mastersingers," and "Parsifal." The link between the song contests (for the hand of a sublime woman) of "Tannhaeuser" and "Mastersingers" is self-evident, and oft-discussed, but what is not so self-evident is that, in light of my interpretation, Tannhaeuser's visits to Venusberg and his muse Venus for inspiration are Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration, and Tannhaeuser's spellbound and therefore unwitting revelation of this secret (a secret Tannhaeuser himself may well forget each time he's left Venus and re-awoken on earth to bring forth a work of art she inspired) to the assembled knights, ladies, King, and Elizabeth (his waking, or conscious, muse, as opposed to his illicit, unconscious muse Venus) is Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's unwitting betrayal of the secret of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration (in the womb of night) to the light of day, or consciousness. This betrayal is replicated in "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tristan," when the artist heroes Siegfried and Tristan, under a spell, give their muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Bruennhilde and Isolde, away to their audience, represented respectively by Gunther and Marke. That is to say, they are giving away the secret, forbidden knowledge which is the source of their formerly unconscious artistic inspiration, to their audience. This unconscious source of inspiration for secular art corresponds with religious revelations to the Folk, i.e., those earliest fully human communities in times past who collectively dreamed their gods and religious faith into existence. In "Parsifal," a now sterile former artist Klingsor deliberately gives the woman who could - were he not sterile, i.e., too conscious - have been his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Kundry, away to his audience, represented by Amfortas, thereby tormenting Amfortas with the unhealing wound which in former, less conscious times, first religious faith, and later art, temporarily healed (i.e., made man feel as if he were healed, for a time).

PH: This insight in no way contradicts Millington's description above, but rather, complements it by enriching the meaning of the contrast between Venus as representative of profane love, and Elizabeth as representative perhaps of compassionate, non-sexual love (though, as Millington notes, Ellzabeth is swept up by ecstasies of love with Tannhaeuser she'd never before experienced). This also enriches our understanding in another way, because, as I have shown in great detail in my studies of Wagner's art, the hero's and heroine's sexual/romantic love for each other is actually Wagner's metaphor (and this in no way diminishes the power of their sexual encounters, but enhances it) for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration by knowledge hidden within his unconscious. This knowledge, in effect, is that what mankind has historically taken as divine, actually has a profane origin, as Feuerbach said. This helps us resolve what looks at first like a contradiction: Venus's profane love vs. Elizabeth's divine love. Actually, the profane love is the truth, the forbidden knowledge, hidden behind the illusion of divine love. And this of course helps us to grasp Lohengrin and his forbidden question. Prior to reading my more extended discussion of Millington's next chapter on "Lohengrin," readers would be advised to read my paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried," originally published by Millington's colleague Stewart Spencer in the 5/95 issue of WAGNER, the scholarly journal (no longer in print) of The Wagner Society (London). It is posted right here in this discussion forum, in three parts.

BM: P. 51: "In his autobiography, Wagner tells us how a chance encounter suggested to him the possibility of a drama that fused the separate stories of Tannhaeuser and his cupidinous dalliance in the Venusberg with the song contest at the Wartburg:

'[...] The element in the folk book which made such an impact on me was the connection, if only fleetingly set forth, of Tannhaeuser with the contest of song in the Wartburg. I was also familiar with this through Hoffmann's story in the "Serapions-Brueder"; but I felt that the writer had a distorted view of this old material and I now wanted to form a more authentic picture of this attractive legend for myself.'

The folk book in question was almost certainly Ludwig Bechstein's collection of Thuringian legends, "Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thueringerlandes (1835-38), which erroneously and anachronistically associated the two stories. At about the same time, his friend Samuel Lehrs drew to his attention a scholarly paper by C.T.L. Lucas arguing (the theory has not subsequently been accepted) that one of the competitors at the Wartburg, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, was to be identified with Tannhaeuser the minnesinger."

PH: Note here in Millington's commentary Wagner's instinctive insistence that in some sense he knew better than the scholars he was studying the deeper significance of these old myths and legends, and that he could in some sense restore their original meaning. This is not so far fetched: if my assumption is true that Wagner is a world-historical example of a truly unconsciously inspired artist, then Wagner is among the select few individuals in world-history who originated our religious myths in older times, as well as created inspired art in modern, secular times. It is to be expected that he would see what others could not see. At any rate, Wagner cobbled together Tannhaeuser's illicit visit to Venus with his unwitting revelation of that secret visit to those who should never have known of it, at the song contest to win Elizabeth's hand in marriage. This plot concept is the token of Wagner's fear that the artist-hero in modern times is predestined to grow so self-conscious that he can no longer seek redemption from the real world in his unconscious mind (his muse of artistic inspiration, the heroine in Wagner's art), and must in fact betray the forbidden knowledge formerly hidden in his unconscious mind, to his audience, letting sunlight into the womb of night (as in "Tristan").

PH: This plot concept is absolutely central to Wagner's art from "Tannhaeuser" onward, and the groundwork for this was laid, as I've said elsewhere (see my Introduction to "The Wound That Will Never Heal" at, by clicking on "Resources," and then "Papers on Wagner"), in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," in which the heroine Senta (who would later evolve into Wagner's concept of the artist's muse, who possesses, and is the guardian of, forbidden knowledge which is the key to the artist-hero's artistic inspiration) possesses secret knowledge of the hero's unhealing wound. In the Dutchman's (like Wotan's) case this secret knowledge consists in the fact that, like all folk who long to find life's meaning in spiritual transcendence of the real world, he swore an oath to round the Cape of Good Hope against all odds, against nature itself, or to destroy himself trying. He was taken at his word by Satan, just as Wotan is, in effect, taken at his word by Loge, who lures him into the self-deception which is at the root of the "Ring" tragedy. That was Wagner's first example of man's existential dilemma, his unhealing wound, that he is bound by his nature to seek to transcend the natural limits of his body and life (what Kant described as man's ineradicable metaphysical longing, so to speak), yet this very longing is natural in origin, and man's quest to transcend Mother Nature, and his own nature, is futile. This is the root tragic flaw which in my view is the essential substrate and hidden foundation of Wagner's authentically inspired life's work (from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal").

BM: P. 55: Referring to the Venusberg Bacchanale, Millington says: "As usual, Wagner wants it both ways: even as unbridled sensuality is condemned in his text, the music celebrates it in no uncertain terms. And this is only the first of many contradictions in Wagner's "Tannhaeuser." In the Bacchanale composed for the Paris production of 1861, youths, nymphs, bacchantes, fauns and satyrs disport themselves to the accompaniment of voluptuous harmonies. Nothing in any of Wagner's earlier works approaches this licentious orgy for its shameless stimulation of the senses - visual and olfactory as well as aural. These revellers, by the way, represent the lower orders banished to the Venusberg along with the classical gods at the arrival of Christianity, according to legend."

PH: Note here that, as in "Lohengrin," there is a conflict between pagan gods (Venus their queen, and Holda - i.e., Freia - in this instance - the subject of the song the piping shepherd boy sings as Tannhaeuser is waking from his sojourn in his unconscious mind and with his unconscious muse of inspiration Venus, a model for the alte Weise in "Tristan"; Ortrud their worshipper in "Lohengrin," in which she specifically names her pagan gods Freia and Wodan, whom we will later meet in the "Ring") and Christianity, which supercedes paganism and forces it underground. The interesting thing is that Wagner associated the worship of pagan gods with nature worship, not supernatural transcendence, and associated supernatural transcendence, Feuerbach's cardinal sin religious man commits against his mother, Nature, with Christianity, in renouncing the physical body and natural law in favor of the supernatural. So for Wagner paganism is more earth-based and therefore reality-based, and religions which stake a claim to transcendence are at war with the real, and are unreal, illusory. Religious man, as Feuerbach put it, figuratively kills his Mother in denying nature. Wagner states this in dozens of ways and (in spite of the fact that he sometimes also contradicts this thesis) readers of will find I've cited many passages from his writings and recorded remarks to this effect, which echo Feuerbach's pervasive influence.

BM: P. 55: "... Elizabeth is not the plaster saint she was for too long made out to be in traditional stage productions. On the contrary, she is subject to genuine stirrings of passion. These are alluded to first in her duet with Tannhaeuser in Act II, 'Where have you been all this time?', she asks him, now he has returned to the bosom of his fellow minstrels. 'Far from here in distant, distant lands,' he replies, but tactful amnesia has set in about the Venusberg: 'all recollection has suddenly vanished,' he says. Elizabeth goes on:

But what a strange new world of feeling
awoke in me when I heard you!
At times it seemed I'd die of sorrow,
and then my heart would burst with joy,
with feelings I had not experienced,
and longings I had never known! "

PH: I don't believe Tannhaeuser's amnesia is tactful amnesia. That is to say, I believe Tannhaeuser actually forgets his visits to Venus each time he awakes from his reunions with her, inspired each time to create a new work of art, which is falsely understood to be divinely inspired. My basis for this assumption is not only a variety of things Wagner said about Tannhaeuser, but also dozens and dozens of other details from his writings, recorded remarks, and other operas and music-dramas which support my view of Tannhaeuser's sojourn in the Venusberg as Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration. If Venus is Tannhaeuser's unconscious muse of inspiration, Elizabeth seems to be his conscious, waking, ideal muse, identified with the transcendence of Christianity, rather than the earth-bound reality of pagan belief, in which the gods are so much more like us mortals. Venus therefore in a sense is "is," and Elizabeth is "ought." But Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" was never, as he said himself, complete or finished, conceptually, dramatically, or musically, because five distinct music-dramas were waiting to be born from it, and there was underlying conflict between them. But note: Venus's sensuality invades Ellzabeth, while at the same time, and in seeming contradiction (as Millington himself notes), Elizabeth ends by compassionately martyring herself for the sake of Tannhaeuser's salvation after he has exposed the forbidden knowledge of his sojourns in the Venusberg to the public. A variant of this notion will carry over into Elsa's relationship with Lohengrin, for Elsa will offer to help Lohengrin keep his secret, by offering to become a repository for his forbidden self-knowledge, with no suggestion of transcendence.

BM: P. 55-56: "When, later in the act, Tannhaeuser shocks the assembled company with his stated intention to slake his lusts, a stage direction coyly notes that Elizabeth should exhibit a 'conflict of feelings of rapture and anxious surprise'. By the third act, it is true, Elizabeth has been drained of any sexual longing she might have had: now her life is given over to prayer and expiation. Or, as another stage direction has it, 'her way leads to heaven, where she has a high purpose to fulfil'. For all her sensual potential, then, Elizabeth's primary role is as one pole in a binary pairing with Venus."

PH: Wagner was still confused, had not yet fully worked out the conceptual framework which was to give stunning unity to his four mature music-dramas, and therefore in Tannhaeuser restores, in the end, a traditional Christian-redemptive-transcendent resolution which in his later works will be entirely undermined by the tragic implications of the hero's predestined betrayal of the secret of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration (the same kind of unconscious inspiration, by the way, which gave birth to the world's religions, so that the artist-hero's betrayal of this forbidden knowledge retrospectively undermines religious faith as well).

BM: P. 57-58: "But Tannhaeuser's celebration of 'true love' is not exactly a radical feminist vision either: rather it is a yearning for the indulgence of bodily desire. Patriarchy subsists in the Venusberg as well as in the Wartburg. Tannhaeuser's real sin, as Nina Parly perceptively suggests, may be that he loves only himself. His self-indulgence has a strongly narcissistic flavour, and indeed it was for the 'sin of pride', he tells Wolfram on his return from Rome, that he sought forgiveness. Evidently, having left the Venusberg of his own volition, but finding himself oppressed by the reactionary mores of the Wartburg, he began to turn his lustful, selfish gaze on Elizabeth. Understanding the needs of others is a vital part of the process of self-enlightenment, and the redemption effected by Elizabeth is in essence, Parly notes, a turning away from this self-absorption towards a selfless, empathetic love."

PH: It is true, as Millington strongly suggests above, that Tannhaeuser holds himself guilty of having turned his lustful gaze, so to speak, upon Elizabeth, who proves herself selfless in her prayer to God and martyrdom for the sake of Tannhaeuser's salvation. The fully evolved allegorical unity which characterizes Wagner's mature music-dramas, and even to an extent "Lohengrin," is not yet fully developed in "Tannhaeuser." Nonetheless, Wagner has introduced here his notion of the unconsciously inspired artist-hero, and of the artist-hero's unwitting betrayal of the forbidden secret of his unconscious inspiration, two concepts which play a decisive role in Wagner's mature music-dramas. For this reason we can't construe Tannhaeuser's guilt towards Elizabeth as merely lust: the ultimate source of his guilt is that he has revealed the secret of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration to all the folks attending the song contest at the Wartburg, and the secret source of their (with the exception of the compassionate Elizabeth, who asks for forgiveness for Tannhaeuser) uncompromising rage with Tannhaeuser is that he has revealed something forbidden about the true source of their faith in the divine, which is that it has sensuous, natural roots. Tannhaeuser, in other words, has cast doubt on the very concept of divinity and of redemption, which is why they find his revelation of his illicit activities so irredeemable. And the Pope later concurs with them. Note that the Pope's prophecy that Tannhaeuser can only obtain redemption if the Pope's wooden, but dead, staff sprouts fresh green shoots, is a cryptic anticipation of Parsifal's restoration of Mother Nature's innocence, and the blooming of spring flowers which finally heals Amfortas's (i.e., mankind's) formerly unhealing wound (i.e., man redeems himself from religious redemption by restoring the mother he'd renounced, and identifying himself with the earthly, mortal world), in the "Parsifal" Good Friday Spell. As all Wagnerians knows, the Venusberg was a model for Klingsor's Magic Garden, and both the Venusberg and Klingsor's Magic Garden are in my interpretation treated as metaphors for the inspired artist's unconscious mind and source of inspiration.

[PH] This refusal of the Folk and Pope in "Tannhaeuser" to acknowledge that Tannhaeuser can find redemption (until, in the Folk's case, Elizabeth has intervened to call for Christian forgiveness) of course links the folk in "Tannhaeuser" with the folk in "Lohengrin," who similarly banish Ortrud and Frederick for impugning Elsa's alleged innocence and censor the villainous couple's quest to reveal what Lohengrin conceals, a secret which they likewise say would impugn his alleged innocence. What Lohengrin conceals is the troubling knowledge that his allegedly transcendent Grail realm is merely an imaginary projection of earthly, physical, mortal desires, which is why Lohengrin seeks his own redemption from this abstract realm of sterility by seeking an earthly love with Elsa, to restore what is missing in his heaven. This is what Feuerbach called covert smuggling.

I might add that Parly's thesis that Tannhaeuser is merely selfish doesn't wholly ring true, for the simple reason that in Tannhaeuser Wagner is in the act of constructing what in the mature music-dramas we can recognize at the unconsciously inspired artist, who actually comprises both the hero (the unconsciously inspired artist-hero) and his unconscious mind (his muse of inspiration and lover, the heroine). Wagner captured this solipsistic persona in his remarkable statement he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck that his artistic inspiration was like a marriage of himself to himself (please see Appendix II of to find this passage in my anthology of some 800 passages from Wagner's writings and recorded remarks).

[PH] Needless to say there is alot of incipient "Parsifal" in Tannhaeuser, and I have shown in some detail in my essay about the influence of Feuerbach's writings on Wagner's libretto (and hence also the music) of "Parsifal," much of what underlies this connection (you can find this essay at by clicking on "Resources," and then "Papers on Wagner"). My interpretation of "Parsifal" is too complex to go into in detail in this context, but it will be helpful if I say that "Parsifal" is Wagner's critique of his own prior art as a potential means of redemption. It is not that Parsifal renounces selfish lust in favor of self-sacrifice and compassionate love: what Parsifal renounces in rejecting Kundry's bid to offer him redemption through sexual love, is redemption through art, because the Wagnerian hero's sexual/romantic union with his lover is Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration, so that the heroine stands for Wagner's notion of the muse for inspired art. Parsifal, in Klingsor's Magic Garden, and in Amfortas's (the audience's) unhealing wound, and in Parsifal's own confusion of his mother (Nature) with his potential lover Kundry (the surrogate for Mother Nature offered to us by art, or artificial nature), sees where formerly redemptive art must lead, once man and the artist are too conscious to enjoy the fruits of unconscious artistic inspiration any more. They lead to despairing nihilism, i.e., too great consciousness of man's unhealing wound. It is from this, man's ineradicable yet futile quest for transcendent value, which Amfortas suffers: only by renouncing this futile quest for redemption and restoring our true identity as part of Nature can Amfortas heal his wound. Only a restoration of objective knowledge of mother nature, and renunciation of our formerly universal desire to redeem ourselves from reality, can heal this wound, because the wound is caused by man's futile quest for transcendent value. Thus Amfortas suffers desperately from serving the Grail (self-deception) in the face of his true nature.

[PH] Wagner wrote quite a lot in criticism of his own art, and expressed this musico-dramatically in Parsifal's renunciation of Kundry's bid for redemption through sexual love: that is, Parsifal has renounced the muse of art which had inspired Wagner to create and perform all of his prior artworks. Parsifal is in effect the reincarnation of all the world's prior religious and art heroes, i.e., those who have embraced man's alleged transcendent value, at the ultimate historical moment of self-revelation, when he becomes wholly conscious for the first time of who he really is, the historical, formerly unwitting perpetuator of religious man's longing for transcendence, which is a sin against truth, against Mother Nature. It was this sin for which Alberich indicted Wotan, the very symbol of religious faith and its renunciation of mortal life in the real world, when he told Wotan that his sin in forcefully stealing Alberich's Ring from him, would be a sin against all that was, is, and will be, i.e. a sin against Erda's (Mother Nature's) self-knowledge, the truth.

[PH] By the way, Tannhaeuser's complaint about the infinite bliss of the Venusberg and Venus's love, that it's too much for his mortal needs, and that he desires instead pain and death, is taken right out of Feuerbach's "Thoughts on Death and Immortality," published in 1830.

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